The Hobbit: Essay Q&A

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1. When, how, and why does the narrative tone of The Hobbit change?
The tone of the book shifts after the death of Smaug. Before the dragon's death, the novel is a fairly light-hearted fantasy adventure; after Smaug is slain, the story takes a serious and dark turn as greed and pride ruin relationships among the various races of Middle-earth represented in Esgaroth. Tolkien effects the change in tone by giving us access to characters' inner thoughts as well as by portraying external actions which indicate their motivations. Students may suggest several reasons for the change of tone; one possibility is that Tolkien's real concern is not with the quest to kill a dragon, but with the quest to achieve reconciliation in the world, as well as reconciliation within ourselves.
2. Using the pattern of the mythic hero's journey, trace the character development of Bilbo Baggins.
In Bilbo's growth as a character, we can identify: (1) a call to adventure (e.g., Bilbo receives the unexpected visit from Gandalf and the dwarves and is summoned to serve as burglar for the quest to the Lonely Mountain); (2) a separation from the known world (e.g., Bilbo leaves the Shire); (3) initiation into a new world (e.g., the visit to Rivendell); (4) threats to the successful achievement of the quest (e.g., the encounters with Gollum or the wargs); (5) the fellowship of close companions (Thorin and the dwarves, whom Bilbo comes to regard as his friends); (5) the guidance of a mentor (Gandalf); (6) a descent into darkness (e.g., freeing the dwarves from the Wood-elves' dungeons); (7) a rebirth or resurrection (Bilbo's burglary of the Arkenstone, daring to go against Thorin); and (8) the transformed hero's return to the old world (Bilbo returns to the Shire aware of his place in, as Gandalf says, "the wide world").
3. Humphrey Carpenter, in his book Secret Gardens: The Golden Age of Children's Literature (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985) calls The Hobbit "largely a sustained exploration of evil" (p. 212). How might this be true?
Students will wish to consider the themes of "Greed and Pride" and "Scapegoating" in their response (see Theme Analysis), as well as the metaphor of the Dragon. In short, the primary evil readers may see in The Hobbit is the evil of materialism. Thorin's greed for the dwarves' ancestral treasure is only different from Smaug's in that he has an historic claim on the hoard; the greed for this treasure also infects the men of Esgaroth and the wood-elves, leading to a terrible battle (as we experience it through Bilbo's eyes) which can only be stopped by intervention from outside forces (e.g., the eagles, Beorn).
4. What is the role of fate in The Hobbit?
Fate plays a complicated role in the story. On the one hand, references to ancient prophecies about the King Under the Mountain, and the way in which even Gandalf thinks they have found their fulfillment, suggests that there is a larger, guiding "luck" or "providence" (borrowing a term from Tolkien's own Christian heritage, which readers need not share to appreciate this force's presence in the novel) directing actions to some extent. On the other hand, Tolkien also presents Bilbo as taking initiative and acting on his own, bringing events to a successful conclusion-most notably, in the Wood-elves' dungeon-that might otherwise have turned out badly. Students should consider if Tolkien, indeed, resolves the role of fate one way or the other.
5. Choose an element from The Hobbit and trace its later development in The Lord of the Rings.
Students answering this question will, of course, need to have prior experience with the later work. Strong possibilities for rewarding essays include: the Ring, the character of Gollum, the metaphor of the Shire, the place of history and memory, conflict and reconciliation among peoples. Consult the Analyses sections of this study guide for suggested avenues of investigation.

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